Trio of voices tell compelling story of island’s false paradise

Willie Campbell reviews Mr Peacock's Possession's, by Lydia Syson Zaffre.

Following three successful historical novels for young adults, Lydia Syson ventures into the adult historical-fiction world. As with her earlier novels, there is a stimulus through her own family history.

Crusoes of Sunday Island, the 1957 publication from Elsie Morton that told of the Bell family in Raoul Island in the Kermadecs, portrays a New Zealand family living on a deserted island in the Pacific. Syson’s ponderings on them led her to this novel where two sets of company, the Peacock family and a group of Pacific Island men, each hopefully seeking some rewards from an anticipated paradise, experience something disappointingly different than that hoped for.

The story is told in three distinct and successful voices: the first-person thoughts of Kalala, one of the Kanak men; the third-person activities of Lizzie, an older Peacock girl; and sections identified as "before", a narrative of the journey to the island and the Peacocks’ experiences there for the first two years. At the end of those two years, a long-awaited ship — the Esparanza, carrying Kalala and his companions — appears and the excitement is high. Lizzie sees the ship and knows she must start a signal fire. In the first two chapters, one from Kalala and one from Lizzie, the situation is outlined with precision and evocative description, and we are exposed to the context and its implications. The whole Peacock family with the exception of Mr Peacock and Albert, the oldest boy, rush to alert the ship to their presence. Kalala boldly and bravely dives into the sea and makes it to shore. He looks up to find Mr Peacock standing over him. The connection is made.

Soon a shore boat brings the ship’s captain and others to the beach. The Kanaks look at the island and have their dreams shattered — no houses, no town, children who cannot read the words the men write in the soil. How will they earn enough money to take home and increase the status of their family? It is made clear these men are part of much exploitative movement in the South Pacific. After refusing a rough covering and sleeping on their mats for the night, the Kanaks are caught up in the search for Albert, who is missing.

The story focuses on this search and is enriched by the "before", what led to the Peacocks being on this strange false paradise where they had dreams of plantations of fruit, herds of sheep and goats. There are many twists in the search and its conclusion. Eventually a different kind of vessel approaches the island, uniformed men land and hoist a Union Jack. It is no longer simply a family dream of paradise and they will have to start all over again. The tale is told with lyrical language that uses metaphors from nature — "Mrs Peacock’s voice ripples like windblown water". This is a compelling story, which pits human desires and endeavours against overwhelming power and dominance.

- Willie Campbell is a Dunedin educator.

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